There was an angle
where I went
as a knowing'
As soon as I opened the book, these experimental lyrics of Brenda Hillman's
reminded me of Robert Duncan, sharing with him that quality of a soft,
dreamlike universe, although Duncan can also write with a precise sensuality
(I later read the blurb on the inside front cover comparing Hillman to Robert
Duncan and H.D.).
These lyrics don't, obviously, make prose sense and are not intended to.
Rather they seek to touch us at a deeper level, to startle us into a new
consciousness. At their best, they
take us into another world of the imagination, put images and concepts
together in fresh and unexpected ways:
century's fountains learning
not to lie.
will die but
go through an
However, overall, I felt disappointed with the book. The lyrics which work
well promise the reader an experience which in the end is denied us, leaving
an impression of vagueness and vacuity.
At times, I was reminded of other writers I admire, but this only
served to emphasis Hillman's weaknesses.
For example, '6 Components From Aristotle' reminded me of Anne Carson's MEN
IN THE OFF HOURS, where classical references are juxtaposed against
contemporary events. The subject of '6 Components From Aristotle' is the
sinking of the submarine Kursk. But Hillman only seems to trivialise the
event, writing how 'My life was a tangle at that time. Hopkins a bit of a
Dido, pretty much a burning / magpie / nun'. Do we care? There are one or two
strong images in the poem, for example, 'The submarine as a tube of air meant
nothing to them.' But as it stands the poem comes across as more whimsical
than anything else.
The way Hillman combines concepts and images, philosophy and poetry, made me
think of Rosmarie Waldrop, but Hillman often lacks Waldrop's ability to truly
intrigue, to make us believe her:
pulled from the seem of the leaf
moth had fed
to the you
born a thousand times,
you too tired
'Nine Untitled Epyllions')
I can just picture Hillman yawning at this point, which is a shame because
other lines in the poem are much stronger. Perhaps it is simply a question of
editing a little more, since there is a genuine lyric gift at work here.
The blurb on the inside of the book tells us 'Pieces of Air in the Epic' is
'the second book of a tetrology that takes the elements - earth, air, water,
fire - as its subject'. However, if the blurb had told me that this book is
about one of the other elements, I would just as easily have believed it. The
whole book has such an unanchored feel , that it's difficult to say it's
really about anything at all.
Not that it has to
be about anything. I don't think that matters. But this is the claim made by
I feel as if I am being unnecessarily harsh here. I think this is because I
am frustrated by the fact that there are lines, entire passages even, in this
book, which have the piercing quality of sunlight dispersing remnants of
mist. There are lines that can amaze:
see bones in the butterfly wings
to give up wanting. Life's action // amazes you
are warm in paradise
But when we go to another line or turn to the next page we are back in the
world of yawning whimsy again: 'If you tilt your head sideways // the
smoothness // feels // something'.
This is, in Brenda Hillman's own words, 'a brightness betrayed'.
Although Hillman has published several books of poetry, I have to confess I
am not familiar with her work as a whole. She is definitely someone whose
books I will pick up in the bookshop to browse through if I see them, but it
will take quite a lot more to make me actually want to take one home with me.
Ian Seed 2005